By Brad Fauber
Remember when the Washington Nationals were picked by many to be a strong candidate to win this year's World Series?
That was only a month ago, just before Major League Baseball was set to begin its 2013 season. Many baseball analysts and "experts" couldn't stop talking about the potential of this year's version of the Nats, and for good reason.
Washington led the big leagues in wins last season, and with guys like Stephen Strasburg, Bryce Harper, Gio Gonzalez, Jayson Werth and Ryan Zimmerman serving as the backbone of a potentially devastating roster once again this season, there was plenty for Nationals fans to be excited about.
But April came and went, and the Nats did very little to back up all of the hype that they were receiving throughout much of the preseason. Washington ended last month under .500 with a 13-14 record, and finished April by losing eight of 12 games.
Not exactly the way Nationals fans had hoped to start the season, but it's also not nearly early enough to justify writing off Washington's chances this year. Let's not forget, the season is 162 games long, and there is plenty of time for the Nationals to turn into that World Series favorite that many predicted they would be.
For that to happen, Washington's offense will have to find some way to generate runs -- something that the Nationals have seemed oddly incapable of doing so far this season. Through Thursday, Washington was ranked 25th in the MLB in runs scored with 101 and 28th in the league in batting average (.230). The Nationals have scored two runs or fewer in 10 of their last 14 games.
Harper has been one of the few bright spots in the Washington lineup, as he is tied for second in the big leagues with nine home runs and leads the Nationals with 18 RBIs and a .323 batting average.
To be fair, the Nats have had to deal with injuries, as Zimmerman (who was activated from the disabled list on Friday), Werth and catcher Wilson Ramos have all missed time with various ailments.
The offense is sure to begin producing at some point -- Washington was fifth in the National League in runs scored last season -- but the ultimate success of the Nationals hinges on their starting pitching.
Washington's rotation looks deadly on paper with a strong one-two punch at the top in Strasburg and Gonzalez, but the two stars of the Nats' staff have yet to really get going.
Strasburg hasn't pitched poorly by any means this season (3.13 ERA in six starts), but he is 1-4 and hasn't exactly looked like the "greatest pitcher in baseball" that many people expect him to be.
The real surprise has been the poor performance of Gonzalez, who has a 5.34 ERA through six starts and is 2-2 this year. Gio has pitched past the fifth inning just twice this season, and he has allowed 20 runs total in his last four starts (three of which came against NL East competition). The good news for Nats fans is that Gio has a career ERA of 3.72, so his inconsistency on the mound probably won't last.
Washington's starting rotation has been saved by the lesser-known duo of Jordan Zimmermann and Ross Detwiler. Zimmermann has been magnificent this season, pitching to a 5-1 record and a team-leading 1.64 ERA. Opponents are batting just .168 off him.
Any of Washington's starters are capable of putting up those kinds of numbers, and that is what makes the Nationals such a dangerous team moving forward.
The fact of the matter is that the Nationals were just 2½ games behind Atlanta for the NL East lead after Thursday despite the miserable month of April. And Washington won its first two games in May, both against the Braves.
That could be the start of something.
Contact sports writer Brad Fauber at 540-465-5137 ext. 184, or firstname.lastname@example.org